Great Transition

The Great Transition: Shifting From Fossil Fuels to Wind and Solar Energy / Lester Brown

Pick Up the Pace

Lester Brown explores the enormous strides and advancements of renewable energy around the world.

Lester Brown makes a satisfying – if not always perfectly compelling – argument that fossil fuels are already inheriting the world.

Each chapter presents a round-up of all the wins, advances and anticipated benefits of a particular renewable energy. Brown glows equally on the subjects of solar, wind, geothermal and small hydro power. Even a well-informed reader is likely to find something new and interesting among the neatly laid-out facts. For example, did you know that China, not Iceland, is the world’s leader in geothermal energy production? Indeed, these facts are the key strength of the book, as Brown has done thorough research but does not accompany it with balanced analysis. 

Cheering Canada’s electricity exports from Ontario to New England and New York, he is content to note that this is possible because Canada is so sparsely populated. Many Canadians might have hoped to make the argument – or at least raise the possibility – that our electricity surplus could be used to reduce our reliance on nuclear power. But these alternative possibilities are not touched upon by Brown.

Other chapters provide a valuable bird’s-eye view of sectors for which it can sometimes be difficult to discern clear trends. Brown ably pieces together facts and figures from around the world to give an interesting look at the relative success of various renewable energy technologies within different geopolitical climates. The United States, for example, is currently experiencing what Brown refers to as a “geothermal renaissance” with 124 power plants currently under development. However, here as elsewhere, he does not explain the factors that might constrain or otherwise impede the growth of geothermal power as an industry.

The result is that renewable energy is presented as a locomotive gathering momentum without any significant sources of friction to slow it down.

China is perhaps the best example of a country whose energy landscape can be either fantastically encouraging (now the world leader in small-scale hydro power with 249,000 megawatts) or Dickensian orphanage-level depressing (producing and consuming nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined) depending on the facts produced.

Brown is justifiably elated on the topic of China’s small-scale hydro, but is content to note that on the subject of coal, “rising public anger over pollutants from coal-fired power plants is damaging the coal prospect.”

Surprisingly, Brown spends relatively little time exploring new innovations within blossoming renewable energy fields. New municipal waste-to-biofuel advances, for example, would have fit neatly into the context of a discussion on our energy future. The chapter on solar energy concentrates almost entirely on conventional photovoltaics, even though ideas like light-sensitive nanoparticles, Gallium Arsenide-based cells and even floating solar power plants look increasingly like they will be a significant part of the not-so-distant energy future. Other advancements, such as battery innovations which threaten to turn the entire energy sector on its head, are also conspicuously excluded.

Moreover, an opportunity was missed to conduct some interesting analysis of the factors which allow technologies such as wind and solar power to thrive in some parts of the world and lag behind in others. What economic policies do the global leaders have in common? What geographical features? Thus, readers are left to wonder for themselves, as Brown’s theme of “renewable energy is moving ahead” seems to him a sufficiently robust idea to support the entire structure of the book, without accompanying analysis, explanation or examination.

It’s not by any means unreasonable to write a book presenting all of the good news in renewable energy around the world. Boosting the spirits of those attempting to affect this energy transition is a worthy cause. 

However, if this bit of quasi-propaganda were the explicit goal of this work, it ought to have been stated from the outset. Brown instead poses the question for himself, “Can the world’s economies move to wind and solar fast enough to avoid crossing key thresholds that could cause climate change to spiral out of control?”

As an experienced researcher and author of more than 50 books on environmental topics, Lester Brown surely has some interesting opinions to share on potential answers to that difficult and complex question. Unfortunately, he has divulged few of them in this particular book.

The Great Transition: Shifting From Fossil Fuels to Wind and Solar Energy by Lester Brown, New York: WW Norton, 2015, 192 pages. Reviewed by Stu Campana

Reviewer Information

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.